The Guatemalan immigrant was paid below minimum wage, in cash, by an employer who made him work more than 70 hours a week, he says.
But what sets the 26-year-old’s case apart from countless others involving exploited immigrant workers is that Antonio Vanegas is among a group of undocumented immigrants who have worked for years in federal buildings.
This week, Vanegas and about a dozen other immigrants and their supporters are staging a hunger strike to push for better working conditions as well as immigration reform.
The hunger strike comes two months after Vanegas and more than 100 other workers – many of them for businesses that are contracted by the federal government -- held a one-day strike to protest low wages and other unfair labor practices.
“I was subject to harsh treatment at work,” Vanegas said to Fox News Latino. “We immigrants come here to work hard, to fight for the American Dream. That’s what made me come to this country, to improve life for my family in Guatemala and for my five-year-old daughter.”
The campaign to call attention to the plight of the workers, and immigrants, is organized by Good Jobs Nation, an umbrella group that includes Jobs With Justice, Interfaith Worker Justice, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Strikers in May wanted to call attention to what they said was the poor treatment of employers who are linked to the federal government. The protesters included people who work for private companies that have contracts to operate in the Old Post Office, the Ronald Reagan Building and the Smithsonian museums, among other places.
Vanegas worked for Quick Pita, which is part of the food court at the Ronald Reagan Building, for three years. He and many other workers who took part in the May strike were told not to return after it took place, but after pressure to take them back, his employer allowed him to work for a few more days, he said.
Soon after, though, an officer with the Federal Protective Service, which handles security at federal buildings, asked to examine his ID. After the officer told Vanegas it was not acceptable, he was reported to immigration officials, who placed him in deportation proceedings.
Vanegas said that his employer never asked for proof of his eligibility to work in the United States.
An effort to obtain a comment from the manager or owner of Quick Pita was unsuccessful.
Paco Fabian, a spokesperson for the labor federation Change to Win, which has organizes federal contract employees, said that employers often turn their workers over to immigration authorities when they complain about unfair labor practices.
“The government, also, can give him a special visa while he’s in a labor dispute, or they can say ‘We’re deporting you.’”
“The undocumented workers want an end to the use of immigration [enforcement] as a form of retaliation,” Fabian said.
One of the more ironic aspects of Vanegas’s case is that he was working in the same building that houses the Customs and Border Protection, which enforces immigration and trade law.
“He was even serving customers from the Customs and Border Protection,” he said.
Vanegas, who has a deportation hearing next month, said he often bantered with Customs agents.
“I never felt afraid because I was undocumented,” he said, adding that he knows other undocumented immigrants who work in federal buildings. “Many don’t have documents, I was paid in cash and so are they.”
Fabian said that the employment of Vanegas and other undocumented workers by federal contractors shows “how vital undocumented workers are” in the U.S. economy and “how vital immigration reform is.”
In answer to the employment of undocumented workers and complaints about wage and hour violations by federal contractors, Dan Cruz, a GSA spokesman, emailed: "GSA has clear guidelines in our contracts to ensure that our contractors follow the law, and we take allegations of violations very seriously.”
“This matter was referred to the Department of Labor for further review and we have sent a letter to TCMA reiterating that it must follow federal and local laws in their own contracts with the food court tenants. We will look forward to reviewing the results of DOL’s investigation and will take appropriate actions where necessary."
Advocates for the workers say that there are about 2 million federal contract workers doing such jobs as serving food to driving trucks and manufacturing military uniforms. They say many earn so little they live in poverty and depend on public assistance.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
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